Who taught the young Viktor Orbán the most about power?



The anti-capitalist Antonio Gramsci in the hands of the Hungarian New Right

In my four-part article published in the online social theory magazine New Equality, I described in detail how the system of national cooperation, after gaining political and economic power, consciously and systematically built up its educational and cultural institutions and shaped its intellectual holdover by referring to Gramsci. This article aims to highlight the most important moments in the construction of this ‘superstructure’ after the material and production ‘base’ has been laid.

Viktor Orbán in 1990 in the Parliament
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Viktor Orbán in 1990

The ‘hero’ of the young Orbán’s university thesis

Viktor Orbán graduated from the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of ELTE in 1987. In his thesis, he dealt with the strategy of Solidarity, the opposition movement organised against the Polish communist state party of the 1980s.

Antonio Gramsci, who became the ‘hero’ of his thesis, was recommended to him by his teachers and patrons, Tamás Fellegi (later the Minister of Development) and political scientist professor Attila Ágh. But who is Gramsci?

Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was an Italian follower of Marx – a socialist and then communist politician and theorist, journalist and editor, organiser and leader in one person. Born in Sardinia and educated in Turin, he became one of the leading ideologists and leaders of the Italian revolutionary workers’ movement in the industrial centres of northern Italy. He is credited with rethinking, renewing and even expanding Marxism, which in the first decades of the 20th century tended to overemphasise the decisive force of economic factors. Gramsci was one of the Marxist critics of this ‘economism’. While he held Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg in high esteem, he was sharply critical of Stalin, and explicitly disapproved of, if not opposed, his takeover.

Gramsci spent the last ten years of his life (1926–1937) as a political prisoner, largely in jail, in crippling conditions. He was arrested in 1926 on the orders of his former party comrade, the socialist politician-turned-fascist people’s leader Benito Mussolini. Mussolini rightly recognised after 1922 that the communist Gramsci’s intellect, charisma, and organisational and leadership skills posed a serious threat to the establishment of his fascist autocracy. Following Gramsci’s arrest, the fascist prosecutor who drafted the indictment expressed Mussolini’s will in court in 1928: ‘We must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years!’ Gramsci did not last twenty years in a fascist prison; he died in 1937 at the age of forty-six from untreated and therefore debilitating illness.

Gramsci wrote what were perhaps his most important and instructive works for posterity as a prisoner between 1929 and 1935. He also sent letters from prison and wrote in a series of notebooks; these were distinctively titled ‘letters from prison’ and ‘prison notebooks’. Gramsci had lived in severe deprivation since childhood and was plagued by illness and physical pain throughout his life – even before his arrest in 1926. After his arrest, his health deteriorated considerably, and his illnesses became particularly severe in the 1930s. In prison, as a seriously ill man, he was denied proper medical care; his sleep and rest were systematically disturbed for years; letters, books, notebooks, and stationery which were sent to him were repeatedly withheld; his notes were checked.

To avoid the watchful gaze of the prison censors, Gramsci often used cryptic language, ciphering and codes. Instead of historical materialism or Marxism, for example, he used the phrase ‘philosophy of praxis’. On issues of revolution, dictatorship, and the construction of hegemony, he sometimes wrote only in military language. The themes of his prison notebooks are nevertheless extremely varied. He repeatedly challenged the views of those who disagreed with him, while often referring to the disputes of his comrades. Most notably, he criticised the views of two Italian idealist intellectuals, Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. He typically referred to his comrades by their first names, so as not to attract the attention of the censors: he referred to Lenin as Ilich, Luxemburg as Rosa, Trotsky as Bronstein.

The nearly three thousand pages of his thirty-three prison notebooks were written under such circumstances.

The harassing and squalid conditions left their mark on the content and form of his notes.

They are difficult to understand, and difficult to interpret. After Gramsci’s death in 1937, his views were exploited. At first, it was mainly his Communist Party comrades (notably Palmiro Togliatti and others) who interpreted the prison notebooks according to their own needs. After 1968, Gramsci began to be invoked more and more often by New Left and New Right representatives. The purpose of these uses and references was to allow the revelators to present themselves as Gramsci’s heirs, to justify their positions and political practices.

The interpretations are quite different but share some characteristics: on the one hand, they repeatedly strip Gramsci of his anti-capitalist commitment, which they consider to be the chief burdensome, embarrassing, unpleasant and unacceptable element of his thought. On the other hand, they often reinterpret Gramsci’s anti-fascist, communist and Marxist nature. They want Gramsci, but most of the time without Marx (and of course Lenin), freed from the whole tradition of the radical and revolutionary left’s politics. This is how it happened that, using Gramsci’s concepts, even the ‘building’ of a hegemony by the Orbán regime in Hungary became justifiable, even celebratory.


Building hegemony as political praxis

Orbán learned the method of building hegemony and counter-hegemony from Gramsci – and he learned this political praxis very well. But not the content of Gramsci’s political views.

Gramsci was a communist, an enemy of capitalism and fascism. His aim was to revolutionise the Italian industrial working class and to end capitalism in Italy by overthrowing the capitalist state. Orbán is, of course, neither a communist, nor a Marxist, nor an anti-fascist. If we compare the content of their views, the two men have nothing in common.

Whereas the anti-fascist Gramsci died in the prison of Italian fascism, today fascists and new right-wingers (like Orbán) use his views to build their hegemony by drawing on him, learning from him, and referring to him. In his lifetime, Gramsci was robbed by Mussolini’s fascist regime when his life was shortened by decades due to their arresting and imprisoning him. The twisting of Gramsci’s thoughts is a second robbery – he has been robbed once again.

Gramsci’s practice of hegemony building is a political praxis aimed at gaining consent, agreement, approval. It means the gathering of allies, supporters, partisans (and voters) – and herding them into a single, common camp. Hegemony is the result of this: a way of governing and exercising power that is accepted by the governed-controlled-subordinated, to which they also consent.

Building a counter-hegemony means building counter-power. It means developing interpretations that run counter to official, established interpretations, building counter-institutions, organising a counter-society and a counterculture. It is the creation of an alternative system of alliances with those who hold power, the construction of an alternative – the organisation of a different camp of allies, supporters, advocates (and voters). Counter-hegemony building is a rebellion prolonged in time. This strategy is pursued by those who do not hold the (state) power, but who have the potential, capacity, and resources to challenge the interpretations, institutions, and organisations of those who do.

Hegemony building requires apparatuses: institutions, organisations, and loyal personnel. The process requires replacing the old institutions and their staff. It is not worth listing examples from recent years, as we could go on for days. It is the task of special institutions to convey the world view of a force striving for hegemony.

Replacing the ‘old’ intelligentsia with ‘new’ personnel is, essentially, a political issue, which can be achieved by transforming the institutions that employ them, deciding what knowledge, what interpretations, what meanings these institutions should produce. In other words: which intellectuals should be given positions, jobs, salaries, livelihoods, recognition – artistic, educational, research and promotion opportunities.

The work of interpreting reality takes place within the walls of such institutions. As well as the reproduction of intellectuals.

The production, transmission, and dissemination of knowledge, skills, know-how, interpretations, meanings, and identities all take place in such institutions. To this extent, hegemony building is institution building, which requires a loyal apparatus, loyal intelligentsia. Orbán and his followers therefore realised early on that for their regime’s new hegemony, they would need new institutions, new personnel, new interpretations, and new intellectuals. The replacement of the ‘grey matter’ is underway.

But this is not just a political issue, nor is it just a ‘cultural issue’. It also requires real estate – buildings to be bought and renovated – which creates jobs for the construction industry. It requires capital, finance, and credit as well, which sets the banks and financial and credit institutions in motion. Building hegemony also requires private equity funds, a set of firms, corporate networks, ownership, and loyal owners. So, this is an issue of economic control and ownership as well.

In the last five or six years, we have heard the most about Antonio Gramsci in Hungarian from Márton Békés. As a theoretician of the New Right, Békés, in his 2018 article ‘Gramsci from the Right’, created the slogan ‘Gramsci is ours – read, interpret, use!’ Békés, of course, adopts the Italian communist’s views without Gramsci’s Marxism and anti-capitalism, in order to use him to justify the hegemony building of the Orbán regime and to glorify the Fidesz-KDNP’s ‘national bloc’, the ‘System of National Cooperation’. He has turned the communist Gramsci into a nationalist puppet, and the Marxist organiser into a never-existing, wobbly idealist, so that he can claim that Orbán has achieved what Gramsci wrote about.


This article was originally published in Hungarian in the online social theory magazine New Equality. This is a shortened English summary of the original text.